Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the latest spokesperson for our wretched excuse for a president, told us October 20 it was “Highly inappropriate to argue with a four-star Marine general.” Sanders was attempting to defend White House Chief of Staff John Kelly’s false accusations about an elected member of Congress, Rep. Frederica Wilson (D, Florida).1
There are so many things wrong with Sanders’ statement that WC cannot address them all in a single blog post. But here are a few:
Sanders’ statement is fundamentally a logical fallacy, something called argument from authority. It was debunked by Aristotle in his Rhetoric in the 4th Century B.C. but you still hear it. The argument isn’t necessarily fallacious if you are citing within the special expertise of the putative authority. But Kelly wasn’t, and, in any event, Kelly was irrefutably wrong.
To those of us who grew up during the Vietnam War, you can answer Sanders’ premise with one name: William Westmoreland. General Westmoreland lied to the American public all the time about almost everything involving the Vietnam War. If you watched the Ken Burns’ documentary, you saw it; if you haven’t watched, read The Pentagon Papers. Military generals lie all the time. Military generals – and former generals – get caught lying all the time.
Mr. Kelly is a retired Marine Corps officer. He’s a civilian now. His gross misrepresentation of Rep. Wilson’s statements – contradicted by video footage and transcripts – were made as a civilian. Worse, they were made while attempting to defend the previous lies of his boss, who himself is a pathological liar. Kelly’s past career doesn’t enter into it. Well, his past career would matter if he still followed the Marine Corps pledge – semper fidelis – but clearly that’s been left behind, along with the uniform.
An honorable Marine Corps officer, caught in a lie, is trained to immediately admit the error, apologize and work to recover his honor and reputation. Instead, Kelly seems to have come down with the same pedem in os tuum (foot in mouth) disease that afflicts everyone around the President. And a seemingly absolute inability to admit error.
The broader premise of Ms. Sanders’ claim – that military officers in general don’t lie – was debunked in 2015 when the U.S. War College’s Strategic Studies Institute issued a study that concluded U.S. Army officers often resort to “evasion and deception,” and everyone at the Pentagon knows it. “In other words, in the routine performance of their duties as leaders and commanders, U.S. Army officers lie,” reads the study.
Finally, it is the absolute duty of the media to argue with authority. Lesé majesty, the crime of violating majesty, an offence against the dignity of a reigning sovereign or against a state, vanished with the Declaration of Independence, when we renounced absolute monarchs and declared our independence from them.2 And enacted the First Amendment to remove any doubt.
Maybe the whole Kelly/Wilson sideshow is just another distraction, the propaganda tool used by President Trump when something else starts to go sideways. But maybe it is something more important, something more sinister: a part of the Trump Administration’s unrelenting attack on media that criticizes him.
But don’t try to persuade WC of something by claiming the absolute authority of a general.
- Another instance of the ad hominem fallacy, the Trump Administration’s go-to propaganda tool for dealing with anyone it disagrees with. ↩
- Technically, America briefly flirted with lesé majesty with the adoption of the Aliens and Sedition Act of 1798. The First Amendment made the Sedition Act unconstitutional, as James Madison was at pains to point out. ↩